Monday, December 19, 2005

'Straight-cut ditch' schools widen gap in education --

Marion Brady | Special to the Orlando Sentinel

First, the New Advocate is out. If you have not read it yet do it now!

I started out just planning a few quotes, but this guy is so right on I ended up quoting nearly the whole thing:

Brent Staples writes about education. His opinions appear in the New York Times. I write about education. My opinions appear in the Orlando Sentinel.

Staples thinks No Child Left Behind is improving education in America. I think it's hammering nails into education's coffin...

...The long-range consequences of NCLB will be bad for all students, but they'll be devastating for the very students NCLB's advocates and apologists most want to help.

I begin my argument by asking not what's bad for students, but what's good for them. Hands down, the most popular answer to that question is, "The basics! The 3 Rs are the foundation of everything else!" The power of this assumption is demonstrated daily in the school nearest you as all else is put on a back burner in an effort to raise reading and math standardized test scores.

But as is often the case, the popular answer is superficial. The basics are mere means to an end. What we most want for our kids is an education which helps them realize their potential. Obviously, highly developed basic skills are important tools in a kid's pursuit of her or his potential, but it's easy to win the "basics" battle and lose the "developing individual potential" war. And that's where NCLB is taking us.

Henry David Thoreau can help explain where I'm coming from. "What does education often do?" he asked. "It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook."

No Child Left Behind is a strategy for making straight-cut ditches. In contrast, developing individual potential doesn't just leave brooks free to meander, it aims to clear away debris and make meandering easier.

I'll hear from those who resist this idea. They'll tell me kids have to learn to live in the real world. They'll say that NCLB's emphasis on standardized tests is a good thing because "everybody has to take tests." They'll maintain that schools dedicated to developing individual student potential will be "soft," that such an education might be OK for a few talented kids, but as a general policy it's an invitation to anarchy, or at least to social decline.

Ironically, while America chases Japanese "straight-cut ditch"standardized test scores, the Japanese come to America to find out about our "meandering brook" students. Asked by Dr. Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut about their interest in American education, visiting Japanese educators recently said, "We have no Nobel Prize Winners. Your schools have produced a continuous flow of inventors, designers, entrepreneurs, and innovative leaders. We can make anything you invent faster, cheaper, and, in most cases, better. But we want to learn what role this 'creative productivity' focus plays in the production of creative and inventive people."

NCLB's push for "straight-cut ditches" is bad policy, but exactly why it's often particularly devastating for blacks, other minorities, and the long-time poor may not yet be obvious.

The main problem? Those high-stakes tests NCLB demands.

There are many kinds of "smarts" -- linguistic, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal, and so on -- many paths to the development of individual potential. Never mind, says NCLB. It focuses on just one -- symbol manipulation skills -- and ignores the rest. Worse, the emphasis isn't even on symbol manipulation skills in the broadest sense, but just on those most valued by those hired to write test questions.

Well, it will be argued, those skills are the key to good jobs, so they're the ones every kid needs.

Maybe. But the big test isn't seen either by the kids who take them or by the general public as just a test of ability to manipulate symbols. It's seen as a general intelligence test -- a measure, across the board, of smarts, of brains, of innate ability. That one score on that one ability then becomes, both to the kid and the larger society, the whole, denigrating story.

If you have any doubts about the effects of thinking you're not smart, in a society that thinks you're not smart, Google "self-fulfilling prophecies."

Marion Brady, a longtime educator, lives in Cocoa. He can be reached at He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.

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